Here’s a timely reminder to not get caught up in the propaganda free-for-all that seems to have replaced online and broadcast news media. Truth is never an easy thing to discern, and even harder to act on sometimes. But there is a way.
The Kalama Sutra – you’ll have seen it all over the internet in one form or another:
“Do not believe in something because it is reported. Do not believe in something because it has been practiced by generations or becomes a tradition or part of a culture. Do not believe in something because a scripture says it is so. Do not believe in something believing a god has inspired it. Do not believe in something a teacher tells you to. Do not believe in something because the authorities say it is so. Do not believe in hearsay, rumour, speculative opinion, public opinion, or mere acceptance to logic and inference alone. Help yourself, accept as completely true only that which is praised by the wise and which you test for yourself and know to be good for yourself and others.”
The trouble is, this sutra is often misquoted, simplified, or quoted out of context and used to justify the idea that you can believe whatever you want – that truth is relative. The above quote appears to be a simplification and it leaves out some important details.
The original sutra comes from a talk given by the Buddha to the Kalamas who lived in a town called Kesaputta. The Kalamas were particularly confused about certain questions about life, death and karma because they’d been told different things by various other teachers. So they were looking to the Buddha to clear things up for them.
Of course, being the Buddha, he didn’t just tell them what to think. He told them how to work it out for themselves, at the same time as subtly pointing to towards the Dharma as a solution.
The Kalama sutra encourages doubt and free inquiry but within the context of strict ethical principles. So the advice only really works for people who already have a clear sense of what’s right and wrong – what is good and wise behaviour, and what isn’t.
These are the criteria for rejecting an idea or course of action:
“It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blameable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.”
The Buddha goes on to demonstrate through inquiry that greed, hate, and delusion are bad because they lead to suffering. So it’s in everybody’s best interests to refrain from these actions. While developing the opposite actions of non-attachment, compassion, and wisdom is good for all and to be encouraged.
“Kalamas, when you yourself know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blameable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”
Blind faith is totally unnecessary. All you have to do is look to your own experience and ask yourself: what will happen if I do this or think this or believe this? Think everything through carefully and test all ideas against reality. The same applies to deciding who counts as wise. Look at another’s behaviour and ask whether their words match their actions. Look at the consequences of those actions.
We could add a few things to the list of questionable sources:
- Do not go upon what has been tweeted
- Do not go upon what has been shared on Facebook
- Do not go upon the opinion of vested interests
- Do not go upon those who seek to benefit from your ignorance
I’m sure you could add many more.
We certainly live in interesting times and the next few years are going to test everybody to their limits. The best you can do is maintain your mind at peak fitness.
Be careful what you believe. It’s a jungle out there.